PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – For yet another year, the Verizon IndyCar Series comes to Southern California for arguably its marquee road or street race of the season.

The 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra), however, will be a case study in whether qualifying or strategic variety will emerge as the way the winner is determined after 2015 went against the previous three years with the DW12 chassis.

In the three races from 2012 to 2014, there were three or more cautions in each event, and only a total of eight drivers who started in the top 10 (three in 2012, three in 2013, two in 2014) who also finished in the top 10.

Last year, in the first year of aero kits, passing was harder and eight of the 10 drivers who started in the top 10 also finished there.

We’ve also had crazy variety in the podium finishers: here’s the last four years of podiums at Long Beach:

  • 2015: Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya
  • 2014: Mike Conway, Will Power, Carlos Munoz
  • 2013: Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson
  • 2012: Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe

So that makes picking a winner a little difficult… although if Team Penske’s St. Petersburg form carries over to Long Beach, that team might be hard to beat.

Here’s the talking points heading into Long Beach:

2016 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – Talking Points

Passing or no passing? 

Long Beach was never the world’s biggest passing haven to begin with even in the “glory days,” and the jumbled results as mentioned from 2012 through 2014 had a lot more to do with strategy gambles rather than a driver moving outright through the field (Will Power’s memorable 2012 win from 12th, however, was a nice mix of both).

But through two races, it’s become apparent on both one street course and one oval that with the cars closer in appearance, competitive performance and high top downforce with the respective aero kit upgrades, that if you’re stuck behind someone you might not be able to pass, and you’ll be stuck behind.

This will make qualifying and the run to Long Beach’s notorious Turn 1 all the more crucial if the race goes similarly to last year, when there was just one caution for four laps and all 23 starters finished the race.

Is this Pagenaud’s place for his first Penske win?

We asked the same question three years ago when he hadn’t won a race yet in IndyCar, and we asked this same question last year after he’d bagged his first four wins in 2013 and 2014 once with Team Penske.

If there’s a venue where Pagenaud should get that elusive first win with Team Penske in his 19th start with Roger Penske, it’s here.

Pagenaud’s four Long Beach finishes the last four years are second, eighth, fifth and fourth. He’s also a past winner here in the American Le Mans Series.

More importantly, he’s got the best momentum he’s had in gelling with the No. 22 crew compared to last year. This was only his third race with the team last year; now with an added season and two second places already under his belt, the points leader is primed to finally win one.

Hunter-Reay’s double and quest for glory 

Ryan Hunter-Reay will pull off the unusual feat of racing in both IndyCar and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this weekend, and with both manufacturers.

The Floridian will race the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP in IMSA’s Prototype class with Marc Goossens, substituting for Ryan Dalziel who’s on assignment at the FIA World Endurance Championship season opener in Silverstone with Tequila Patron ESM.

That’s in addition to his day job with the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, still his priority for the weekend.

Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal have split the title of Honda’s best driver thus far this year; Hunter-Reay made a dynamic move of Helio Castroneves for third at St. Petersburg and got robbed twice on yellow flag periods when another podium was possible at Phoenix.

“It would have been nice to come away with a result that reflected that, but the racing gods buried us with two yellows,” Hunter-Reay admitted to me post-race at Phoenix, where he was nearly worth the price of admission on his own.

This will be a test of a weekend for RHR, who traditionally qualifies well at Long Beach but hasn’t bagged a huge race result here since his emotional 2010 win not long after losing his mother to cancer.

His starts since joining Andretti at Long Beach: second, second, 13th (qualified third but lost 10 spots per engine change), second, first and fourth. His finishes: first, 23rd (gearbox), sixth (penalized from third for contact), 24th (accident), 20th (accident) and 13th. He tries particularly hard at Long Beach, and has sometimes gone over the edge.

More history beckoning for Dixon?

Most people do not appreciate how good Scott Dixon is. Some do, certainly, but an encore win following his Phoenix win and his 2015 Long Beach triumph would be his 40th of his career – and put him solely fourth on the all-time win list, trailing only A.J. Foyt (67 wins), Mario Andretti (52) and Michael Andretti (42).

I’d meant to write a Dixon legacy piece following his Phoenix win, when he equaled Al Unser for fourth overall on 39. Then I saw this piece from a good friend in Oil Pressure’s George Phillips and thought that did the job quite nicely. I’ll leave you to read it for yourself, and I’ll add my own thoughts following last night’s evening with legends at the Petersen Museum.

Win droughts that could end? 

Helio Castroneves hasn’t won since Detroit race two in 2014. His countryman Tony Kanaan hasn’t won since Fontana 2014.

Will Power, a two-time Long Beach winner, is nearing one year since his last win at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in 2015. He had a nightmare Long Beach last year when he qualified 18th and finished 20th.

Pagenaud, as mentioned earlier, is in search of his first Penske win overall and first since Houston race two in 2014.

These four are good candidates to end their double digit race dry spells and there’s a good chance three if not all four of them will end up in the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday afternoon.

The final word

Why not leave it to the living legend to describe the legend of Long Beach? Here’s the defending champion, Dixon, on the circuit, race and atmosphere:

“Long Beach has such an amazing history. It’s a truly iconic American event that started gaining a lot of popularity with Formula One back in the day. With the layout of the track it’s truly one of the best street circuits anywhere around, and more importantly you actually get to race there.

“It took me forever to get to victory lane there, but we managed to accomplish that last year and I hope we can return to that form again this year.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, April 15

10:00-10:45 Practice 1
2:00-2:45   Practice 2

Saturday, April 16

10:00-10:45 Practice 1
2:00-3:15   Qualifying
3:00        Qualifying (SDD on NBCSN)

Sunday, April 17

9:00-9:30   Warm-up
1:00        Pre-Race (LIVE on NBCSN)
1:38/1:45   Drivers Start Your Engine/Est. Green Flag (LIVE on NBCSN)

All times local and PT.

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Helio Castroneves (pole)
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Sebastien Bourdais
7. Josef Newgarden
8. Marco Andretti
9. Carlos Munoz
10. Sebastian Saavedra

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Juan Pablo Montoya
3. Scott Dixon
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Simon Pagenaud
6. Josef Newgarden

Eli Tomac wins Houston Supercross: Hunter Lawrence takes early 250 East lead

Tomac Supercross Houston
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

With his 47th career victory and third of the 2023 season in Houston, Eli Tomac closed to within one win of tying Ricky Carmichael for third on the all-time Monster Energy Supercross list.

Tomac rebounded from last week’s crash by earning the holeshot in both his heat and the Main. At the start of the big show, he couldn’t shake Aaron Plessinger in the first four minutes and actually was in the process of losing the lead as a red flag waved for a crash involving Tomac’s teammate Dylan Ferrandis when he overjumped an obstacle and landed on Ken Roczen’s back fender as they raced for eighth.

“That was a tough race,” Tomac told NBC Sports’ Will Christien, referencing his loss to Chase Sexton in the heat. “And honestly, I was just beat down after that heat race and was searching quite a bit and was basically losing speed everywhere. I just rode better, straight up in the Main. I felt better.”

In their heat, Sexton passed Tomac at the two-minute mark and then simply rode away from the field. At the end, he had an almost eight-second gap on Tomac.

“It wasn’t great by any means,” Sexton told Jason Thomas. “I feel like the strengths I had all day, I really lagged in the Main event between the whoop and the sand section. I think I could have walked through it faster. It was still a good ride; it wasn’t great. I expected after the heat race he would be fired up.”

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Jason Anderson scored his second consecutive pole, but he was not happy to finish third behind the two points’ leaders.

“We should be thankful every time we get to be up here,” Anderson said. “They’re making it tough on me, but all I can do is give my best.”

Tomac had to withstand a red flag and the distant second place finish in his heat to win the Houston Supercross race. In the post-race conference, he indicated that he did not make any changes to the bike and simply rode better.

Aaron Plessinger and Cooper Webb rounded out the top five.

Ferrandis was fitted with a neck brace, but still able to walk to the medical cart. He was still being evaluated by the medical staff as the night came to a close.

In 250s Hunter Lawrence entered the 250 East opener as the consensus favorite to win the championship this year with Christian Craig making the move into 450s and his brother Jett Lawrence in the West division. He answered quickly with a huge lead in Heat 1, but it almost went awry in the Main.

Lawrence got a good start, but he was passed early in the race by two-time MXGP champion (2020, 2022) Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut this week. Vialle passed Lawrence on the first lap. When Lawrence tried to pass him back, Vialle scrubbed speed off a jump and pushed Lawrence wide, over the Tuff Blox.

Championships are made out of Lawrence’s response. He kept his composure and did not overcorrect before methodically working his way to the front.

“We had a little off track excursion. I wasn’t sure how hard across Tom was coming so I thought I’ll just go left, but then saw that was the side of the track. Thankfully I didn’t hit the Tuff Blox and got back on track safely. … Good start; put myself in position.”

Click here for full 250 East Main Results

Making a move from the 450 class to 250s, Max Anstie had immediate success. He finished second in his heat behind Jordon Smith and lined up with a great gate pick. He had to overtake Vialle in the opening laps and lost ground on Lawrence, that cost enough time to keep him from pressing Lawrence. This is Anstie’s first podium in the United States

“Honestly, I’ve dreamed of this for a long time to come up on these steps and man it’s a great feeling. I’ve really enjoyed the day and being on this 250, I feel like an 18-year-old kid. Everyday I’m learning.”

Smith backed up his heat win with a podium finish.

“It feels good to be back up here again,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time; a lot of injuries.”

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his debut in the 250 class was not unfounded. He finished fourth in his heat to advance to directly into the Main. During the early laps, he was circling the track in a podium position until a minor mistake sent him off the box. In the closing laps, he narrowly made an aggressive pass on Jeremy Martin and narrowly missed the podium with a fourth-place finish.

Martin held on to round out the top five.

Vialle was running in a podium position when went down with a 1:30 left on the clock. He ended his night seventh.

Chance Hymas was also making his 250 debut and scored a top-10 in eighth.

2023 Race Recaps

Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Houston coverage

Houston by the numbers
Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list